Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Houdini spills the inspiration for his "Chinese" Water Torture Cell

Where did Houdini get his ideas? Where, for instance, did he get the idea to be locked in a giant Milk Can? Could he have seen a milk truck rolling down on the street one day and was suddenly struck by the idea--a moment of inspiration now forever lost in time?

Unfortunately, we really don't know when and where Houdini got the ideas for many of his most famous feats. That's why what I have today is so exciting.

Houdini debuted his famous Water Torture Cell in Germany in September 1912. At the start of 1913, he brought the effect to England. On January 6 he opened at the Cardiff Empire and gave an interview to the Western Mail. In it he reveals exactly when, where, and how he landed on the idea for his new escape. This has never appeared in any book as far as I know.

I'll let Houdini tell you it himself:

Acknowledged to be one of the world's greatest mystery men, Houdini, the self-liberator and the original "Handcuff King," who is performing at the Cardiff Empire this week, made the interesting fact known to a Western Mail reporter on Thursday that he will always retain happy memories of Cardiff.
"I like Cardiff, and I like Cardiff audiences, and I think they like me," said Houdini; "but what will ever keep Cardiff dear to me is the fact that your city is really the birthplace of my latest and greatest trick––the Chinese water torture cell.
At the time the inspiration came to me through reading an article in your excellent paper illustrating types of Chinese torture which I purchased in Cardiff. I had rented premises for the purpose of perfecting an entirely different trick. When the idea came I at once stopped working the trick which I was engaged on and set about the 'torture cell,' with the result you may see any evening this week. It is a great trick––my greatest. But, though I had perfected the idea, it was nearly a year before I nerved myself to perform it."

The "entirely different trick" Houdini was working on was, I believe, his frozen in ice escape. As I covered here, this would have involved a glass tank described a being "brass fitted and jointed." News of Houdini working on the effect was reported in January 1911. Houdini played Cardiff in March of 1911. Interestingly, Frank Koval says Houdini visited someone named Charles O. Williams about the construction of the cell this same week. So the timeline of Houdini's story does check out.

One thing that really surprises me here is Houdini calling it the "Chinese" Water Torture Cell. Before I read this, I would have told you Houdini only used "Chinese" in the United States. In Europe, it was always billed as just The Water Torture Cell. Check out the playbill for this very week in Cardiff as an example.

I also always though the use of the word "Chinese" was a commercial flourish, like calling the Needles the "Hindoo Needle Trick" or saying the "Chinese Linking Rings." Evoking the mystery of far off lands has long been fashionable in magic. But here's Houdini saying the inspiration for the escape actually came from images of Chinese torture. This is news to me!

Try as I might, I could not locate the original article in the Western Mail that inspired Houdini in 1911. What kind of torture instruments could it have depicted? Sometime involving foot stocks? Water? Inversion? I would love to know.

I guess it's also possible that Houdini is making all this up just for the reporter. We know he sometimes did that. But I sense we have something real here and a unique glimpse into Houdini's creative process.

Want more? You can read and download the original Western Mail article along with other research material gathered for this post as a Scholar on my Patreon.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Nashville remembers Houdini

Reader Michael Ochoa sends in this photo he took at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. He says Houdini also appears in a film on the auditorium's history. There's no escaping this good old boy!

This timeline chronicles Houdini spiritualism lecture at the Ryman Auditorium on March 11, 1924. The "sunk in water" escape referred to in the ad was his Double Fold Milk Can. Houdini included escapes during this first lecture tour.

This wasn't Houdini's only appearance in Nashville. In 1899 he played two weeks at the Grand Theater on Church Street and even escaped handcuffs at a local police station. During his second week he shared the bill with Sigmund Neuberger a.k.a. The Great Lafayette. This is when Houdini gifted Lafayette with his cherished dog "Beauty." Below is an ad for that week.

The Nashville American, Nov. 12, 1899.

Thank you Michael!


Monday, August 29, 2022

Gladys and Leopold headstones return to Machpelah

Fantastic news today! The headstones for Houdini's brother Leopold and sister Gladys have returned to the family plot in Machpelah Cemetery in Queens. This is thanks to Dorothy Dietrich and Dick Brookz of the Houdini Museum in Scranton, PA, who worked with David Jacobson at the cemetery to make this happen.

The original headstones were badly damaged by vandals in 1994 and have remained absent all these years. These are new headstones in the style of the originals. They look great! While the headstones are in place now, a formal dedication will be held at a later date.

Gladys and Leopold were the last family members to be interred at Machpelah. Both were cremated. Gladys died on December 31, 1958 and was buried January 21, 1959. Leopold committed suicide on October 6, 1962. His ashes were buried on February 3, 1963.

You'll recall that Dorothy and Dick also restored Houdini's bust to the exedra in 2011. They have continued to be caring custodians of the Machpelah plot. In fact, Dorothy was recently named chairman of the S.A.M. Houdini Gravesite Committee.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

Barry Spector's Top Secret "Collins Lock"

If you are a reader of this blog you are familiar with Barry Spector's amazing creations using wood from Houdini's New York home (278). But there's one Barry creation that I've never shared here because it exposes a secret. But that's why I have a Pateron! Clicking the image below will take you to photos and a short video of Barry's creation in action.

Heads up that if you join my Pateron now you will be billed at sign-up and then again on September 1st (Thursday) for that next month. So you may want to wait until the 1st to join. But if you do join now you'll unlock a lot of great content and be able to get the Ken Silverman PDF which will not be available in September. Either way, I look forward to seeing you inside.


Saturday, August 27, 2022

Madonna's daughter debuts video with a Houdini touch

Madonna's daughter, Lourdes Leon aka "Lolahol", released her debut single and video this week. As you'll see, she shot much of the video for Lock&Key in and around Machpelah cemetery and on the grave of its most famous resident. Think I'm too old to pass judgment on the song or her abilities, but I did love her mama back in the day. Enjoy.

While Madonna never used Houdini in her art, the Houdini Historical Center used Madonna in theirs! This poster was released by the museum gift shop in 1994.

Thanks to Bret Marnell for the tip.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Exploring Houdini's Austin

Recently I had the pleasure of visiting Austin, Texas, where Houdini appeared twice during his career. It's a great city with some great Houdini history, so let's raise the curtain and get into it!

Houdini made his first tour of Texas on Karl Hoblitzelle's Interstate vaudeville circuit in early 1916. He played Fort Worth, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. His final stop was the state capitol of Austin. Houdini opened at the Majestic Theater ("The Theater Beautiful") on February 7. Interviewed at the Hotel Driskill, Houdini told the Austin Statesman:

"Austin is a beautiful place and I will not be here long. I would like to see the town, to do my acts and to be peaceful. But there is something in the air. I have not opened my mail and will not until tomorrow. There should be a challenge in it. You know, this place surprises me. It looks a lot bigger than they tell me it is. And you have in the Majestic one of the finest theaters in the Southwest. It would be a credit to any city."

Originally booked for only two days, Houdini proved such a draw that he was held over for the full week. Because the rest of the company moved on to Arkansas, Houdini expanded his act to an hour and the remainder of the Majestic's bill was filled out with a Theda Bara film, The Serpent.

Houdini featured his Water Torture Cell, Needles, and accepted challenges from the Walter Tips Co. (roped chair) and E.M. Scarbrough & Sons (packing case). But the most heavily advertised challenge came from five University of Texas students to escape from a packing case made on stage. The escape took place on Friday, February 11, with Houdini breaking free in 12 minutes. He then demolished the box onstage and handed out signed shards as souvenirs.

The Majestic was still a relatively new theater when Houdini appeared there. It opened in October of the previous year and offered everything from vaudeville to traveling stage shows and films. It was renamed the Paramount in 1930.

Happily, the Paramount Theater still stands today. It remains a very popular venue for Austin's thriving music and theatre scene. I might even go as far to say the Paramount is the best preserved of any Houdini theater in the United States. Yes, I realize there's the Palace in New York City, but from the outside that theatre is unrecognizable from Houdini's time. But Houdini would have no problem recognizing his "Theater Beautiful" today.

During my trip I was thrilled to get a private tour of the Paramount alongside Eric Colleary, Cline Curator of the Theatre & Performing Arts collections at the Harry Ransom Center. It was pretty wild to stand on a stage that Houdini stood on, and see backstage which is pretty much as it was in Houdini's time. Even the loading dock door is still the original. Just think, Houdini's Water Torture Cell rolled through this door.

The biggest thrill of our tour was when our guide, Pasquale Del Villaggio, Director of Production and Technical Services, lowered the original asbestos fire curtain. This dates all the way back to the theater's first days and is what audiences would have seen the night of Houdini performances. It's rarely lowered for obvious reasons. Even many of the staff had never seen it. So to have this lowered just for us was huge honor and an exciting moment, captured on video by Eric.

The Paramount is well aware of its Houdini history. A nice collection of historical clippings, given to the theater by the local S.A.M. Assembly 206, hangs in the offices. Their lounge is called the "Houdini Lounge". Even their wifi password has a Houdini connection (but I won't share that!). There's also the famous hole above the stage that is supposed to have been made by Houdini for a trick. But I'll leave that one for others to debate.

To promote his Austin appearance, Houdini performed a suspended straitjacket escape from the Littlefield building at 6th & Congress. Named for George Washington Littlefield, this classical Beaux-Arts building was erected in 1912. Houdini was suspended at the fifth floor from rigging on the roof. Unfortunately, the only photo of the escape that I'm been able to find is of Houdini and his challenger, Chief of Police Morris, so I don't know precisely where he hung.

The Littlefield building still stands as a Texas Historic Landmark and it's a beauty! Like the Paramount, I'd put this among the best preserved Houdini locations in the country.

Austin American Statesman, Feb. 10, 1916.

While in Austin Houdini reportedly turned down a challenge to escape from the Travis County Jail, saying that jail breaking for him was "old stuff." Well!

Houdini returned to Austin in 1923, once again on tour with Karl Hoblitzelle's Interstate vaudeville circuit. He arrived in the city on November 15 and appeared that night at a rally in the Women's Gym at the University of Texas. Papers reported that Houdini "consented to appear at the rally to help the girls in making the thing go off big." Today the Student Union building stands on that spot.

This time Houdini played two days, November 16-17, at the Hancock Opera House on West 6th St. The Hancock was designed by Frederick Ernst Ruffini and dates back to 1896. The theater became Austin's home for Interstate vaudeville when the Majestic began featuring first run movies (this week it was The Spanish Dancer with Pola Negri). Houdini presented his Needles, straitjacket, and also the spirit slates. It's possible the theater couldn't accommodate his Water Torture Cell as there is no mention of the escape in the reviews.

The Hancock became the Capitol Theater in 1935 and operated until 1963. Today a modern office building stands on the site of Houdini's second Austin theater.

To promote his appearance, Houdini reportedly once again did a suspended straitjacket escape from the Littlefield building, making it the only building in which he ever repeated the stunt. [While this escape is noted in Ron Cartlidge's excellent Houdini's Texas Tours, I'm still seeking firm confirmation.] He also accepted a challenge from the Barker Motor Company to escape a packing case. The best part of this challenge might be the fantastic photo it gave us below!

The Austin American, Nov. 17, 1923.

Houdini also spoke this week to the Young Men's Business League at the Driskill Hotel. He warned of the dangers of spiritualism, giving attendees a taste of the Houdini to come. The Driskill is where Houdini stayed during his 1916 engagement and likely in 1923 as well.

Now owned by Hyatt, the Driskill is a jewel of downtown Austin. Walking inside is like stepping into a time capsule, and it's easy to imagine Houdini striding through the lobby. It also sits adjacent to the Littlefield building, which I never knew until my visit. In fact, all these downtown Houdini locations are within blocks of each other.

Houdini graced yet another stage in Austin this week. The Crescent Theater at 920 N. Congress Avenue played Haldane of the Secret Service during the Friday and Saturday Houdini was in town. It was reported that Houdini would make a personal appearance at the theater during the run. So you really couldn't escape Houdini in Austin during these two days!

The Crescent operated until 1931. While no longer a theater space, the building that stands on the site today appears to be the same structure. So here's Houdini's third Austin theater!

The story of Houdini in Austin doesn't end in 1923. Houdini returned in 1958. Yes, 1958! 

Ironically, it was once again Karl Hoblitzelle who brought Houdini back to the city, this time permanently, when he purchased the Messmore Kendall Collection for the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. Kendall had acquired Houdini's theatrical collection and personal papers from Bess in 1927. So the collection that arrived in Austin in June 1958 was loaded with a lifetime of Houdiniana!

Below you can see a photo of that historic day and the same location as it appears today.

Today Houdini lives in Austin at the magnificent Harry Ransom Center, which is where we will be exploring next! Stay tuned.

My thanks to Erin Waelder, Pasquale Del Villaggio, and all the staff of the Paramount Theater for the unforgettable tour. Jim Nicar for the Women's Gym pic. Ray Anderson of Esther's Follies, which is a must see show in Austin (yes, there's a Houdini reference). And Eric Colleary of course!

Want more? You can view and download 30+ newspaper clippings related to Houdini in Austin as a "Scholar" member of my Pateron by clicking the image below. "Handcuff King" patrons and non-patrons can purchase this research file HERE.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

The New York Times is wild about Ragtime

It only took 47 years, but the New York Times finally got around to reviewing E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. And they like it! I look forward to their review of the musical in 20 years.

Seriously, this excellent "Book Club" retrospective appeared online last week, but the Sunday print edition showcased Houdini in the title and with a key image, as you can see above.

I was just thinking the other day that Ragtime might be ripe for a movie remark or perhaps as a limited series on streaming. We are coming up on the 50th anniversary. Just saying.

Thanks to Todd Karr for the image and patron Steven Anthony Medwetz for the alert.


Monday, August 22, 2022

Misquoting Dumb Houdini

Recently I discovered the sardonic magic blog The Jerx (a take off on The Jinx). It's pretty funny and now a blog I follow. Of course, I had to see if Houdini had even gotten The Jerx treatment, and he certainly has! In fact, they have somewhat regular series called "Dumb Houdini".

In their initial post, "How Dumb was Houdini?", they point out that his oft-quoted, "My brain is the key that sets my mind free" is pretty dumb and makes no sense. But they correctly point out this is NOT what Houdini said. What Houdini actually said was, "My brain is the key that sets me free." That is much less dumb.

They also point out that people are selling merchandise online featuring the incorrect quote. This inspired The Jerx to launch their very own Dumb Houdini Store. That isn't a joke. Well, it is a joke, but the merchandise is real. At least I think it's real?

Speaking of quotes... 

Another quote you will frequently see attributed to Houdini is: "What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes." It's a good quote and it sounds like something Houdini would say. I've never questioned it. But recently someone contacted me asking if I could verify that the quote really was from Houdini.

I did a little research and found a page at Goodreads that attributes the quote to Houdini's A Magician Among The Spirits. I figured it came from one of his books, so that tracks. However, when I did a keyword search of my PDF of the book, I turned up nothing.

I then searched Miracle Mongers and Their Methods, Houdini's Paper Magic, The Right Way to Do Wrong, The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, the Margery pamphlet, even Elliott's Last Legacy. Still nothing. The closest I came was the quote, "Has your brain deceived your eyes, or your eyes your brain?" (Unmasking p 308).

I then plugged the quote into and the earliest hit that came up was from 2008 when a Durham Academy valedictorian named it as his favorite quotation. A search of Ask Alexander turned up a single mention in a 2015 Genii. So not only can I not find this quotation during Houdini's lifetime, I can't even find it before the 21st century!

Then I found this clip from the 2001 film Swordfish.

So there's the quote. At the moment, this is the earliest utterance that I've been able to find. But is it even a quote? It's not all that clear if John Travolta's character is actually quoting Houdini or if this is his own definition of misdirection. But even if he is quoting Houdini here, this is a movie, which is under no obligation to be factual. So it's possible these words are entirely the creation of the screenwriter.

I'm still holding out hope that Houdini did say this. There is still a lot of his written material that I haven't searched. Like I said, it's a good quote and it sounds like something he might say. I really don't want to believe that we've been quoting John Travolta all this time. Because as The Jerx might say, that would be really dumb.


Sunday, August 21, 2022

Watch Carol Burnett's 'Houdini's Daughter' sketch

In 2015 I did a post about a sketch on The Carol Burnett Show in which the comedian played Houdini's fictional daughter, "Flo Ziegfeld Houdini." The sketch went wrong in a number of ways. Now you can watch the sketch for yourself via The Official Carol Burnett Show YouTube channel. This was episode 22 of season 7 and first aired on March 9, 1974. Enjoy!

Thanks to Tom Odgen for the alert.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Take a tour of Houdini's 278

If you've always wanted to go inside Houdini's famous New York brownstone, you finally have your chance! The 278 Houdini House official website has updated with some exciting news:

Long time no see! We had been thinking about offering tours of 278 for some time, but due to the pandemic this idea had to be put on hold while everything ground to a standstill. Things seems to be on the mend and so we wanted to announce we are going to start offering tours of 278. These tours will be limited to small groups and by appointment only! if you show up unannounced we will probably not be able to accommodate you. In addition there will be a fee associated with the tour which we will use to continue working on the renovations of the house. If you are interested in learning more please email and we will work out a time and details.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

Yes, there was a Vanishing Elephant poster

It's one of the great white whales of Houdinidom. Was there ever a poster for his Vanishing Elephant illusion? This has long been the stuff of dreams and April fools jokes. But while doing research at the Harry Ransom Center last week, I discovered that, yes, there absolutely was a Vanishing Elephant poster!

The proof is found in a letter from Birchet "Kit" Clarke to Houdini dated March 7, 1918. The 85-year-old Clarke was a former press agent, Harry Kellar's manager, and a real character (I'll have more on him in time). His letter begins:

My dear Houdini:-

        The red poster came along this morning and is now decorating the wall before my easy chair where I can easily gaze upon it and see Jennie vanish into the upper air like "the baseless fabric of a vision."

There can be no doubt about what Clarke is talking about here. A great deal of Clarke's correspondence at this time references the Vanishing Elephant, and the name of Jennie cinches it. Clarke's description of a "red" poster with Jennie vanishing "into the upper air" brought to my mind the prototype Vanishing Elephant posters also held by the Harry Ransom Center (below). I posted about these a few years back and at that time wondered if they ever became real posters. I think we now have our answer!

Unfortunately, we still don't know what this finished poster looked like. But maybe one day one Clarke's copy or another might surface like "the baseless fabric of a vision."

Want more? You can read Kit Clarke's full 3-page letter, which includes an epic takedown of the Williamson Brothers, as a Scholar on my Patreon.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

LINK: Does Appleton or Milwaukee have the right to claim Houdini as its own?

Controversy! Who has the right claim themselves as Houdini's "hometown"; Appleton or Milwaukee? (You just shut right up, Budapest.) The cases are made for each by magicians Glen Gerard and Ron Lindberg in the Wausau Daily Herald.

I'm pretty sure Houdini himself would be Team Appleton (they do have that great statue), but I'll leave it to Wisconsinites to debate.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

The Mother Scrapbook

Recently I had the opportunity to examine a very special Houdini scrapbook in the collection of John Gaughan. But I didn't examine the scrapbook at John's workshop, although that was my expectation. John insisted that I take it home. He wanted me to "live with it" and "absorb it." I was pretty reluctant to take responsibility for this precious (and brittle!) Houdini rarity, but John felt this was the best way to learn about it. He was right.

So, yes, for a week I lived with this highly personal and pretty strange scrapbook shaped entirely by Houdini's hand and mind. Only after returning it to John did I feel like I could write about it.

A little background on the scrapbook itself. This was part of the collection of Marie Hinson, who held onto many of the most personal items kept by her sister Bess Houdini. Doug Henning acquired many of Marie's treasures, which he shared in his book Houdini His Legend and His Magic. According to John, this scrapbook was something Doug hand selected out of the collection. He later passed it to John as a gift. So this is something precious even before opening it!

I had seen this scrapbook in John's display case on my visits to his shop. John kept it open to the first two pages, which best reflect the personal and mysterious nature of this scrapbook. With John's permission, I'm sharing that here for the first time:

Click to enlarge.

There's a lot about these pages that intrigues me. First and foremost is the quote Houdini has handwritten on the inside cover:

"Live with your friends.........
remembering they may one day be your enemies."

This is a pretty strange and dark sentiment. Why would this hold so much meaning for him? It's interesting that it is in quotation marks. Is Houdini quoting his mother here? If so, what does that tell us about his Cecelia Weiss?

There are other things on this page that perplex me. Why the question about the address for the Carnegie medals? Could M.S. be Mayer Samuel? And what's with the oddly cut out photograph of Houdini in the corner? And why has this page been framed with strips of paper? It all seems coded in some way that I can't quite decider.

The next pages hold a remarkable two-page poem written by Houdini "whilst on a train" in 1907. It's devoted to his father and is based on an existing poem, Rock Me to Sleep by Elizabeth Akers Allen. It's really quite moving. A sample verse:

Happiness and Cheerfulness was then our lot
But now you slumber in the family plot
Whilst I have money at my command
All of which Id give with you to stand
To lead you away, from that Hospital door
Like Doc and I once did, in the dim days of yore.

The remainder of the scrapbook is less specifically about Cecelia and more devoted to motherhood and life lessons in general. It might not be correct to call this the "mother scrapbook" as there is so much more. It seems this was a scrapbook Houdini kept for all things that moved him personally. There's even some random stories about how people get better in middle age and one about the treatment of various skin diseases. There's lots of poetry, and Houdini seems especially fond of the columnist Walt Mason. There's only one photograph, but it's one that greatly intrigues me. Where is "The Cecilia Weiss Ward" I wonder?

Among the many stories Houdini clipped is the below. I'm sharing this one because it's the one I can't forget. And you won't forget it either. When I relayed the story to John Gaughan, he shuddered.

Overall, the scrapbook is filled with many accounts of mourning and loneliness. There are several stories that illustrate how fame and riches do not bring true happiness. It's hardly what one would expect from The World Champion Handcuff King and Prison Breaker. But Houdini had plenty of scrapbooks devoted to his greatness. This is one in which he appears to process his deepest thoughts and self-doubts.

I only paged through the entire scrapbook once as it is very brittle and I wasn't about to let a single piece of paper flake off on my watch. I'm happy to report I was successful.

Having this scrapbook in my home was a powerful experience. I actually had it over the weekend that marked the anniversary of Cecelia Weiss's death. While most of the time I kept it closed inside it's archival container, for those two days I took it out and let it live inside my own display case.

My thanks to John Gaughan for giving me this intimate and surprisingly intense Houdini experience.

Want more? You can read Houdini's full poem for his father as a member of my Pateron.